Academy award winning actress Lupita Nyong’o once said in an interview that colorism, “is the daughter of racism”. Colorism is the preference of lighter skin often within the same racial group. Colorism ensues mostly within the black community. People that deny colorism exists fail to recognize that its roots date back to slavery.
Light skinned children were often the result of forced sexual acts between slave owner and slave. Although the child was not fully claimed by the slave owner, they were still more preferable because they were related to their owner. As a result, light skinned slaves were given house chores and domestic tasks while darker skinned slaves were put to work in fields and more likely to be beaten and overworked. This treatment difference turned into a practice amongst black people.
The Eurocentric features, like light skin, less kinky hair, etc., that the biracial children possessed became a standard of beauty in the black community. After slavery, black people that were in the upper class were largely fair skinned.
The brown paper bag test was utilized in the 19th century to decide who got a “pass” into different social circles. If you were lighter or the same color than the bag, you got more opportunities. If you were darker, you were turned away. There was even a nursery rhyme children sang with blatant colorist connotations:
“If you’re black, stay back; If you’re brown, stick around;
If you’re yellow, you’re mellow; If you’re white, you’re all right.”
Practices like this certainly led to poor self-image of black people with darker skin. Most dark skinned people can recall a time when they disliked their skin or noticed they were treated differently because of their complexion.
Women, in a general sense, are treated differently in society. They are often objectified, critiqued for their figure and treated lesser than in comparison to a man. Women have to deal with body shaming, sexism, and more all the time. Having a dark complexion or more Afrocentric features adds to the list. In other words, black women not only have to combat the struggles of being a woman, but they have to deal with colorism as well. Beauty standards are constantly fed to them through what type of black woman is on ads and beauty products or who gets cast in television shows and movies.
The 2006 film Dreamgirls does a great job at visualizing the struggles of black women in the entertainment industry. The movie tells the story of the Dreamettes, a musical group trying to find their big break in the 60s. The group gets the opportunity to sing back up for a popular soul singer and soon after book their own gig. The only issue the new gig brings up is that there needs to be a change of lead singer. Effie, a curvy brown skin woman, was lead and it was agreed among the group that she had the best voice. The new gig however did not care about talent, it was about appeal. Deena replaces Effie as lead simply because she is slimmer and fair skinned making Deena is more appealing to a white audience. Not only does this offend Effie but it messes with her mind. To make matters worse, the group’s manager who called for the switch was also Effie’s boyfriend.
After the switch the group’s success skyrocketed. For Effie it was a hard pill to swallow that to the eyes of the world she wasn’t beautiful enough to make it. Deena’s beauty was praised so much that the group’s name was changed to Deena and the Dreamettes. Deena was also given outside opportunities like a documentary, a movie deal, and she ended up marrying their manager (Effie’s ex). This whole situation messed with several aspects of Effie’s life and mental health. Her self-image and confidence were ruined, her love life was taken away, and her talent was pushed aside and passed on. All these issues arose from a matter of appearance.
Another way to look at the movie is to show the necessary evil of colorism for black people. White people dictated success so they had to do what was most appealing to that audience, which was a fair skinned woman. It was terrible to watch black people in the music industry tear down one woman for the sake of making it. But the sad truth is this doesn’t just happen in Dreamgirls movie; it plays out in real life all the time.
A great deal of black people that are pioneers in the entertainment world are fair skinned. It makes me wonder: if there weren’t light skinned black people would black people get representation at all? An example of this is Lena Horne. Horne was a very influential black dancer, singer, and activist; however, people feel like a lot of her opportunities came from the fact that she was so fair skinned. At first glance most can’t even tell that she is African-American. A more to date example of this are icons like Beyoncé and Zendaya. Zendaya has even said herself that she is “Hollywood’s acceptable version of a black girl”.
Darker skinned women are turned down opportunities because of colorist ideals of lack of appeal. Dreamgirls exposes the unspoken colorist actions that take place within and outside of the black community. This is shown by the direct correlation between the switch in lead and the group’s success.
Just as in the movie, colorism can affect many aspects of a black woman’s life. For example, searching for marriage, hiring for a job, disciplinary actions and self-perception. Data gathered from the National Survey of Black Americans (NSBA) show that it is less likely for a dark skinned black woman to be married. Beauty standards play a role in both how a woman sees herself and also how a partner may see them. In addition, the pay gap between women and men is widely talked about. In another study, NSBA concludes that there is a significant pay gap between light skinned and dark skinned women. Lastly, since blackness is sometimes associated with aggression, darker skinned women and girls are often punished more harshly than their lighter counterparts. Studies show that darker skinned women are more likely to receive longer prison sentences and darker skinned girls are more likely to be suspended from school (Greenidge).
Personally I can attest to being affected by colorism. Most of this discrimination came from my black peers and friends.
In middle school it was jokes about not being able to see me in the dark and getting called names like “blacky”. In high school I was told that I’d be a perfect girlfriend but I was just too dark for their type. They said that they would like to find a girl with my personality just…white.
In another incident, someone I considered my friend told me that he had to marry a light skin girl because he wants beautiful kids and if his kids came out too dark he’d give them away. Maybe he didn’t realize at the time but in saying that his kids needed to be light skinned to be beautiful he implied that I was ugly. This happened about 3 years ago. While reconnecting with that person, and being much more confident that I was before, I confronted him about those comments. He claimed he doesn’t remember saying such things. It is crazy how something he said that he can’t even remember is going to be something that I recall and something that will affect my self-image for the rest of my life.
There is no doubt that colorism and its effects on black women is real; I can certainly attest to this. Racist ideals have managed to disguise itself and wiggle its way into the black community. Since it is so deeply rooted yet hidden, many people have a hard time acknowledging it. Although the movie Dreamgirls wasn’t real, the story and character Effie is. Black women get turned down, pushed aside, and demeaned all while still rooting for their lighter counterparts for the sake of supporting black excellence. If not from research, personal stories of dark skinned black women validates colorism’s presence. Effects of colorism presents itself every day when a lighter black girl gets more like son TikTok or when the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, gets called an ape by other people in power. Beauty comes in all shades and that message needs to be enforced to the fullest in order to reverse or change the self-hate that colorism creates.